When you ask a parent what their dreams are for their kids, you reasonably can expect to hear “I just want them to be happy.” When I asked a group of cis parents of gender variant kids to name their dreams, the answers invariably qualified the condition of happiness. These parents specified that happiness for their children means self-love in a world that doesn’t automatically reciprocate.
For example, the mom of a 17yo replied: “I want her to be able to see herself the way she wants to be seen … because she talks about looking in the mirror and just not even identifying at all with that person in the mirror.” Margo (pseudonym) says of her 13yo: “I guess with X being … non-binary … my goal is for them to feel seen and safe and loved. Like I definitely feel like that … my number one goal is … not to make them happy [but] make them be able to handle all of their feelings and know who they are.”
All of the participants in my interview project (thus far) are cis, white women and mothers. College educated and most holding advanced degrees, they are all working in their chosen careers including medicine, education, and social work. Arguably, they each have achieved at least aspects of their own dreams. And they want the same for their kids.
You may already be aware that the rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise in the general adolescent population. One must keep in mind that the intersectionality of factors such as gender, sexuality, neurodivergence,* race, and socioeconomic class each contribute to increased risk. Any young person who is not cis, white, hetero, male, allistic and middle or upper class faces increased challenges that contribute to higher risks of mental health issues.
They are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Nearly 2 million, United States youth (ages 13-24) seriously consider suicide each year.
There is one suicide attempt every 45 seconds.
I specialize in supporting gender expansive youth and young adults, as well as their parents. I am also the cis parent of an enby teen. As a clinician, I have witnessed several trans youth successfully launch into adulthood after suffering for years with suicidal ideation, self-harm, and/or low self-worth.
I can attest to the life-saving value of supportive family, peer, and school communities for these young people. However, even some of my most well-supported clients still suffer from depression, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, as well as report suicidal ideation and self-harm. I want to believe that every bit of clinical work I do contributes to a larger change in mindset. When a queer teen client of mine develops self-esteem and confidence, they are better able to live in and contribute to the world as their true self. As a collaborator in that project, I help pave a path for my own queer teen to live out their life to the fullest.
One of my interviewees commented on her own ripple effect as a physician: “As a professional, taking care of patients, … I am acutely more aware of … gender differences and gender issues and people coming to care and … finding providers that are not so judgmental about [their gender expression]. I can remember my first trans patients some 30 years ago, and I don't think I would be the same now as I was then.” She added that as a parent of a trans kid: “I want to continue to have a relationship with A and kind of foster that [understanding] so that she knows that I'm there for her, because there's gonna be [challenges.]… She’s on hormones now, I don't know if she's gonna wanna have surgery or anything else down the road. So I wanna be there for her.”
For Meagan (pseudonym), the mom of a 14yo: “I just hope he never loses that spark … Undoubtedly he's gonna … face challenges. And I just hope he has the resilience to … bounce back and not go to deep dark places. [And as a parent] I hope they always feel comfortable talking to me and spending time with me.” Finally, a fellow clinician and mom who also specializes in supporting LGBTQIA+ youth, made this open wish about her son’s future: “A wish I have for [our son] is that he would continue to feel okay about his body and feel comfortable with whatever. So whatever that's gonna look like in whatever way that it could.”
Stakeholders and experts in the support of trans, nonbinary and gender variant youth understand the challenges they face and hear the struggle their parents experience. The middle school dean of students of a private K-8 stated: “I think [these parents] know that they need to take their lead from their child. What I thought was fascinating [in a recent meeting with a family] … is they feel more elevated internally than [ever before]. That even though they know they're doing the right thing and they're supporting their child and they're able to talk about it, they're not sure where to go with their own internal fear [about how the world] … is moving in the wrong direction.”
How do parents balance the realities of today’s world with dreams for their kids’ future? What makes it possible to hold onto dreams for your kid when you anticipate the challenges ahead? Just as their kids need to build resiliency in order to face challenges, parents too need to hone their own. Parents need spaces where they can feel these fears, as well as spaces where they feel competent and capable. Here are some resources that enable parents to feel grounded and thereby free enough to keep dreaming for their kids:
1. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and improve your overall health. One of my favorite meditation hacks is to invite clients to choose a daily, mindless behavior (like brushing your teeth or drinking your coffee) and do it differently in order to spark awareness. If you pick brushing your teeth, hold the toothbrush in your opposite hand. If you chose the coffee, notice your first sip using all 5 senses.
2. Become aware of your own biases and norms in order to recognize your own triggers. These websites provide information and prompts for your own self-discovery.
3. Join a support community and/or connect with a gender-affirming therapist like myself. These resources can help you find one or both:
WPATH Provider Search (WPATH stands for World Professional Association of Transgender Health), Mental Health Match, NQTTCN Provider List (NQTTCN stands for National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network), and The Psychotherapy Association for Gender and Sexual Diversity
Find your nearest PFLAG Chapter: https://pflag.org/findachapter/
* Utilizing the wisdom of Finn Gratton’s work (Supporting Transgender Autistic Youth and Adults: A Guide for Professionals and Families, Gratton, 2019), the terms “neurodivergent, neurodivergence, or neurodiverse” in this context assume a normal brain exists. Instead, being neurodiverse is actually a part of the full complexity of human expression rather than a diagnosis.